After rattling Republicans at a host of town halls protesting plans to kill Obamacare, liberal activists are zeroing in on their next target: Neil Gorsuch.
The confirmation battle over President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee — set to heat up ahead of his testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee starting March 20 — is shaping up as a pivotal moment for the burgeoning protest movement.
Persuading Senate Democrats to mount a filibuster of Gorsuch would solidify the influence of the anti-Trump grass roots, on the heels of its success in pressuring the 48-member minority to engineer a historic slow-walking of the president’s Cabinet nominees.
The debate over Gorsuch since Trump nominated him last month has been surprising low key. The highly credentialed federal court judge has impressed Democratic senators in private meetings, raising the possibility he’ll clear the Senate without a bloody filibuster battle.
But significant public pushback against Gorsuch this month would ramp up the pressure on Democrats who right now are more focused on defending Obamacare and investigating Trump’s ties to Russia than on the Supreme Court.
Anti-Trump strategists say the Democratic base is prepared to step up the resistance to Gorsuch.
“Stopping a Supreme Court nominee means demonstrating to Democrats that their base doesn’t want them cooperating with Donald Trump,” Ben Wikler, Washington director of MoveOn.org said. That could prove an easier task for liberal activists than, as Wikler put it, “convincing Republicans they’re in political danger” if they vote to overturn Obamacare.
“The level of potential energy for demanding that Democrats do their jobs is off the charts,” Wikler added in an interview.
Veteran Democratic strategist Jesse Ferguson said the ongoing controversy over Trump aides’ previously undisclosed contacts with Russian officials, itself a major topic of town-hall protests over last month’s recess, will help stoke opposition to Gorsuch.
“The idea that you could ram this through and no one would notice gets harder when everyone’s antenna is up because of other personnel decisions he’s made about his administration,” Ferguson, a former Hillary Clinton aide, said in an interview.
The Democratic base’s alarm about Trump’s advisers was on stark display throughout last month’s procedural blockade of multiple Cabinet nominees. During that campaign against what many of Democrats criticize as the president’s “swamp Cabinet,” Democratic senators often cited the enthusiasm and commitment of the anti-Trump movement.
Democrats couldn’t defeat any of Trump’s Cabinet nominees on the Senate floor, but they welcomed the chance to speak for the grass roots even on losing battles. During the height of the confirmation debate over Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) said he was seeing “intense and sustained engagement” on the Supreme Court as well as on Trump’s Cabinet and Obamacare.
A significant part of that engagement began with Indivisible, a new force for mobilizing local anti-Trump demonstrations that was founded by former Democratic congressional aides. The group crafted a script for local activists to use against Gorsuch a week after Trump tapped him for the high court.
“If Democrats truly do oppose this nominee, they should oppose him with everything in their toolbox,” Indivisible executive director Ezra Levin said in an interview.
But Levin underscored that the Gorsuch script, like other Indivisible directives on strategies for resisting Trump on other fronts, isn’t being pushed out to local Indivisible chapters but offered as a model.
“We’re not dictating anything” in terms of how often the anti-Gorsuch language is used, Levin said. “We do not want to be heavy-handed or take control of the movement.”
And Indivisible’s biggest strength — the ability to generate large turnout at local town halls that lawmakers hold during congressional recesses — may not be available to use against Gorsuch. The GOP-controlled Senate is setting the stage for a full vote on the Supreme Court nominee before April’s two-week recess, in part to give the Senate enough time to clear a must-pass government funding bill by April 28.
It’s unclear how systematic liberal groups will be in their campaign against Gorsuch, who has been making the rounds in the Senate for weeks as part of a largely successful persuasion campaign. Wikler, of MoveOn.org, acknowledged that “Gorsuch has had the stage essentially to himself” so far but insisted that “that’s going to change.”
Also unclear is whether a Democratic pressure campaign can stop the Senate from approving Gorsuch. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) has predicted his eventual confirmation, either by garnering 60 votes or with Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) changing Senate rules to approve Gorsuch with a simple majority.
Ilyse Hogue, president of the abortion-rights group NARAL Pro-Choice America, said she senses the Democratic base “getting increasingly concerned” about Gorsuch as the March 20 start of his hearings draws nearer. The Affordable Care Act produced “the majority of the energy” among protesters during last month’s congressional recess, Hogue said, but “we’re starting to see the seeds” of town-hall energy getting redirected at the Supreme Court fight.
“These people are flooding town halls and running for office at unprecedented rates,” Hogue said of the newly engaged Democratic grass roots. “They want elected officials to do their job, and part of that job is digging really hard at the hearings into his record.”
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